Dear Flight School/FBO colleague:
If you've read the papers lately you know that general aviation is being threatened. And the truth is, it doesn't have to be. The fact is, there are a few people in the GA community who are making it very difficult for the vast majority of law-abiding, regulation-following, safety- and security-conscious pilots. What's hurting us doesn't have to happen. And we all play a key role in stopping the threat to GA.
I'm asking for your help.
As a businessperson who has invested both time and money in your business, I am sure you are just as frustrated as I am when you see the future of your investment jeopardized by stupid pilot tricks that make the news. These incidents give the politicians a sound-bite issue and an opportunity to threaten your investments with onerous regulations. And believe me they will take every opportunity they can. There is an almost irrational fear of small aircraft out there and hysteria about what a terrorist might be able to do with one. Of course, we all know that a half-ton pickup truck can carry much greater destructive power than a tiny Cessna. But we have to deal with perceptions, not reality.
Consider what is driving perceptions right now.
It was bad enough when a 14-year-old-kid in Alabama, mad at his parents, stole a Cessna 150 and took it for a joy flight. It was even worse that he found the keys on a clipboard - inside the unlocked aircraft! "We've never had a problem before with planes being stolen, so I guess we have been a little lax in our security," the FBO owner admitted. The story made national news.
Then an allegedly drunk 20-year-old student pilot and two of his teenage buddies stole a Cessna 172 in Connecticut for a five-hour excursion around New York. After first scattering a construction crew with a low pass, they "landed" on a closed taxiway at the White Plains airport a little after 4 in the morning. That made even bigger news.
This is an area that is, not surprisingly, very sensitive to national security. Several members of Congress have asked if more security is needed; they are calling for an investigation into the possibility of general aviation aircraft being used for criminal or terrorist acts. Meanwhile, Connecticut's governor has ordered a "security audit" of all state airports; Alabama is about to do the same, and other states are likely not far behind.
What can be done about it? Secure your aircraft. And make sure your students, your employees, and the pilots who frequent your business, are all doing everything they can to prevent aircraft theft.
I want you to imagine this: The local "Eyewitness News" crew sticks a TV camera in your or one of your employees' face and says, "Isn't it true that nothing would prevent a terrorist from stealing an airplane from this airport?" I can assure you, it has happened, and will continue to happen at airports, particularly next month as another ratings period starts.
Think about how much better it will play on the news and, more importantly, in public perception if you can say, "We keep the aircraft keys in a locked area and only release them to authorized pilots. We put a throttle lock (or prop chain, or tiedown lock) on all parked aircraft. We ensure that all our customers keep their aircraft secure. We work with the local police and get regular patrols."
"We train every new pilot to be security conscious. We've implemented AOPA's Airport Watch program, and we encourage all of our employees and customers to look for suspicious activity and report it to the TSA's toll-free GA security hotline (866/GA-SECURE)."
These aren't the only ways to make general aviation more secure, of course. You can see more examples by clicking here.
As business owners and operators, you have a unique opportunity and special responsibility. Your daily efforts now have to extend to security issues, including consistently and constantly reminding your employees and customers about the importance of always properly securing their aircraft. These actions are steps you can take to protect your investment and our industry from this negative publicity. But what's most important is that we take action and demonstrate that we are taking all practical steps to thwart aircraft theft.
And if we don't get everybody onboard? We could be saddled with new requirements - things that would make it more difficult or unpleasant to fly. New rules that could frighten away students, or impose requirements that you or your airport couldn't afford.
Let's not give them any more ammunition. Ever. Please review your security procedures - now - and take any and all appropriate steps to keep GA safe, secure, and out of the news.
June 30, 2005